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Solovky: the place of no return

The tragedy of Mykola Zayets
20 грудня, 00:00

Ukraine remembers the victims of the Solovky tragedy in the months of October and November, when over 1,100 “counterrevolutionaries” were executed during the “Great Terror.” Other mass shootings took place in December 1937 and November 1938. During this same period hundreds of prisoners were tortured to death: Ukrainian writers, scholars, workers, and peasants.

The story of Mykola Zayets is just a drop in the ocean of Ukraine’s recent history.


In October 1990 a pensioner living in Chernihiv, Zinayida Havrylivna Turchyna, sent a letter to the prosecutor of Donetsk oblast.

“Please address the question of rehabilitating my husband, M. V. Zayets, born in 1896 in the village of Novosilky, Halychyna,” wrote the woman, who had had no news of her first husband for over half a century. “My husband, Mykola Vasyliovych Zayets, a Ukrainian, was the manager of the municipal bank in the town of Artemivsk, Donetsk oblast. On Feb. 1, 1933, he was arrested by the GPU [State Political Directorate] of Artemivsk, Donetsk oblast, accused of membership in a counterrevolutionary organization. On Oct. 1, 1933, by a decree of the troika tribunal of the GPU collegium of the Ukrainian SSR, M. V. Zayets was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Until February 1934, I occasionally received news of my husband’s whereabouts. In February, after receiving a letter that he sent from a Solovky prison camp, I sent him a parcel, which was later returned. In response to my query, the camp sent me a notice saying that my husband, M. V. Zayets, had left the camp. But where? This is not known. Since then I haven’t received any information about his subsequent fate. If possible, please inform me of his fate or place of burial.”

It did not take long for the Prosecutor’s Office to respond. However, the reply contained only two sentences to the effect that the troika’s decree had been revoked and the criminal case closed, and that M. V. Zayets had been rehabilitated. There was no answer to the question concerning his fate.

His case file, which is stored in the Donetsk archives, contains no reference to his “Solovky past.” How unfortunate that at the time nobody advised Zinayida Havrylivna to “knock on the archangel’s door.” It would have opened, because on July 17, 1989, the Arkhangelsk oblast prosecutor rehabilitated her former husband, who, as we now know, was punished a second time during his imprisonment. The prosecutor’s findings concerning Zayets read: “was held at SLON [Solovky special purpose camp]. On Feb. 14, 1938, the special troika of the NKVD department in Leningrad oblast ordered his execution by firing squad for anti- Soviet views that he continued to harbor (Report no. 303). The sentence was carried out on Feb. 17, 1938.”

Every word of this official document is true. However, there was little hope that the Archangelsk Prosecutor’s Office would try independently to find Mykola Zayets’s family in Ukraine to present them with his rehabilitation certificate. Under the “Family Information” entry in the prosecutor’s findings it reads: “No information on file.”

Zinayida Havrylivna lived to see the collapse of the Soviet empire. However, she did not live to learn the truth she had sought for so long: she died on Jan. 22, 1997. At the end of the 20th century Kyiv saw the publication of a three-volume scholarly compilation of documents entitled Ostannia adresa. Do 60-richchia solovetskoyi trahediyi [Last Known Address: Dedicated to the 60th Anniversary of the Solovky Tragedy] (1997-1999), containing archival materials about Ukrainian inmates of the Solovky prisons. Still, even if Zinayida Turchyna had lived to see this publication, it is unlikely that she would have come across these books, as they are not available through book stores. Published with funds collected by charitable organizations, most of the copies ended up in libraries and regional divisions of the SBU state security service.

Thus, we know when and how this man was killed. But where exactly were these condemned men executed, and where are their burial sites, if there are any? Unfortunately, researchers still have not been able to confirm the place of execution of 198 inmates of the Solovky prison, one of whom was Mykola Zayets. It is known, however, that this was the third wave of mass shootings of Solovky inmates since the beginning of the punitive campaign of 1937-1938. Report no. 303 was signed on Feb. 14, 1938, by the special troika tribunal of the Leningrad oblast NKVD department headed by Mykhailo Lytvyn. The report on the execution of the sentence was signed by Mykola Antonov himself: “The sentence of the troika was carried out on Feb. 17, 1938.”


We learned some facts about the life of Mykola Zayets from the materials of his criminal case No. 30700-fp, now stored in the Donetsk archives. He was born in 1896 in the village of Novosilky (Halychyna). In his last position before his arrest he was the head of the operational section at a branch of the Tsekombank in Artemivsk, Donetsk oblast. He was charged under Article 54-11 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR for participation in a counterrevolutionary organization that was involved in sabotage aimed at toppling the Soviet government. By a decree of the troika at the GPU collegium of the Ukrainian SSR of Oct. 1, 1933, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

During his first interrogation Zayets provided the following information about himself. In 1918-1919 he served in the Ukrainian Galician Army and was captured by the Poles. After escaping, he went into hiding, and later worked in the field of agriculture. From 1920 to 1928 he served in the Red Army and went on to study at the Kyiv Institute of Exchange and Distribution (1928-1931). Later he worked at the Artemivsk Meat Combine. From 1932 until his arrest he worked at the commercial bank in this city. During his second interrogation he added that in 1918 he had voluntarily joined the ranks of the Sich Riflemen. In his regiment he attained the rank of warrant officer. Together with Symon Petliura’s troops he fought against the Red Army (for one day), but then fell ill and was transferred to the rear. After escaping from captivity, he hid out in Kamianets-Podilsky, where he worked in a private print shop for several months. Soon afterwards, when the Poles amnestied the soldiers of the Ukrainian Galician Army, he returned to Lviv. In 1922 he passed external examinations covering seven grades of high school and enrolled at the law faculty of a Ukrainian university. A year later, a student named Stepan Kotsiuba brought Zayets into the “Combat Organization” headed by Oleksiy Yavorsky, the future Solovky inmate who would be accused of membership in the leading structures of the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO).

In the fall of 1924 Zayets participated in a meeting in Lviv, attended by Prystupa, Berezynsky, and others, who discussed the question of creating insurrectionary centers on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR. According to the interrogation records, at that meeting Zayets realized that the “Combat Organization” was an active UVO cell whose goal was to establish “a Great, Independent Ukraine that would comprise the territories of the Ukrainian SSR, Western and Eastern Galicia, and Polish Volyn.” At the end of the year a man named Yasenchuk (also a future inmate of Solovky) arrived in Lviv with orders, after which Zayets was dispatched to Kyiv to serve as a courier. His first attempt to cross the border failed. After spending 30 days in detention, in April 1925 Zayets, accompanied by another courier, crossed the border near Volochysk into the Ukrainian SSR, where a border detachment supplied him with documents for the journey to Kyiv.


The interrogation records provide information on the person whom Zayets contacted in the Ukrainian SSR. He visited a safe house belonging to the intelligence department of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army in what was then 25 vul. Vorovskoho (now Khreshchatyk), and informed Oleksiy Yavorsky about the state of affairs in Lviv. He made contact with Zelenin, who gave him instructions, and in May 1925 he re-crossed the border near Volochysk. With Yavorsky’s assistance, Ukrainian undercover agent Zayets “worked” for the intelligence department of the Red Army until 1928, carrying out the duties of a courier and authorized representative. In 1927 he was promoted to candidate to CP(b)U membership. At the behest of this party, the native of Halychyna was issued documents confirming his service in the Red Army from 1920 to 1928.

Donetsk-based researchers point out the following circumstance. Chekist secret police agents investigated Zayets and another detainee, Leonid Mikhenko (a former soldier of the Ukrainian Galician Army and later the manager of the logistics section at the Kyiv branch of the All-Ukrainian Pharmaceutical Department), almost simultaneously. Zayets was questioned in Artemivsk on Feb. 11 and 15, 1933, and Mikhenko in Kyiv on Feb. 17, 1933. Their testimonies contain a detailed account of an illegal channel of communication that was set up between Halychyna and the Ukrainian SSR. They even disclosed matching last names. Thus, if you discount the bias of the GPU investigators, their testimonies paint a picture of real events that took place in the mid-1920s.

Without a doubt, the UVO had a certain foothold in Ukraine. For some time Zayets and Mikhenko participated in underground activities. Researchers thus believe that “they may have been used as sources of information for the Ukrainian Military Organization, and later the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists). But the case materials do not reveal their anti-government activities in the underground. Furthermore, it has now been proven that the cases were fabricated by the GPU organs.”

The Solovky prison camp staff described Zayets as a nationalist, but available archival materials contain little information about him. But an information note on Mykhailo Kachaniuk, an UVO member, who “carried out sabotage in the cultural field” in the Ukrainian SSR, reads: Kachaniuk hated communism and the Soviet government; in the camp he associated with the Ukrainian nationalists Korsovetsky, Polishchuk, Oliynyk, Sereda, Kurbas, Prokopenko, Zayets, and a few others. State security captain Petro Rayevsky, who temporarily served as the administrator of the Solovky prison in October 1937, signed an information note concerning Zayets: “Finding himself in Solovky, he engages in counterrevolutionary activities among the inmates. He is trying to prove that all the processes underway in the Soviet Union are nonsense and that the government organizes them to its own advantage.”

In all 38 “Solovky cases” mentioned in the reports of the troika, nos. 81-85, 134, 198-199, and 303, all of the accused were sentenced to be shot.

Perhaps there are still some relatives of Mykola Zayets living somewhere in Lviv oblast (someone from Sambir district visited Zinayida Turchyna to pick up photographs and documents that she had managed to preserve). Will the people of Halychyna respond to The Day’s publication?

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